According to Malcolm Gladwell, host of the podcast Revisionist History, the difference in team dynamics between these two sports can be explained in terms of “links.” Basketball is characteristic of a “strong link” system—a team owner can most effectively improve their team’s odds of winning games by improving its best player. Soccer, on the other hand, is a “weak link” system—a team owner would be best served by ensuring that the team’s lower end of the roster is solid. Given a million dollars, the basketball owner would be best served using the whole sum on acquiring one superstar player, while the soccer team owner would more effectively spend it on four adept, but not phenomenal, workhorse athletes.
This Friday, we discussed some of the strong and weak linked systems which exist in cities and regions, and that are engrained in the ways in which we attempt to make strong towns and great places. As planners, we often focus on approaching urban and regional issues from a weak link approach. By advocating for increased equity, and great places for all, we imply that a city or a region is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood or town. It is easy to see how a weak link approach applies in South Jersey, our homebase. A constellation of towns and small cities scattered across the verdant landscape trade commuters and shoppers, goods and services every day. The South Jersey system is a tight-knit one, and when one community falters, it affects all the others.
A strong link approach is, however, effective in certain scenarios. Philadelphia’s revival of the past twenty years is largely thanks to the investments made in its core Center City neighborhoods, begun under the term of Mayor Rendell. By focusing resources on Center City, the city was able to make significant improvements to its strongest link, whose effects have radiated into surrounding neighborhoods. Had the investment been spread across some of Philadelphia’s weak link neighborhoods, the long-term impact of such improvements may have been diminished. Approaching urban problems from a strong link perspective may yield the most high-profile impacts, but it raises serious issues regarding equity. Weak and strong link approaches both have their advantages in addressing our cities’ challenges, but the most effective interventions may arise from a combination of strong and weak link methods—a merged system more similar to American football than to basketball or soccer.